BAGHDAD, Oct 16: Iraqi election officials on Sunday ploughed through mounds of ballots from the historic referendum on a new constitution, following a strong turnout that drew many Sunni Arabs back into the political process.

An initial forecast of the result might be available within two days, with an unofficial tally on Thursday and a final announcement on Oct 24, though that time-frame could change, senior electoral official Farid Ayyar said.

Over 60 per cent of the 15.5 million Iraqi voters cast their ballots, according to early estimates, and the process was spared violence that marred elections in January.

In London, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on Sunday the constitution had “probably passed”, citing what she called the “assessment of the people on the ground”.

But Iraqis sent celebratory gunfire into the sky late Saturday and Shias danced in the streets of Baghdad after polls closed, ahead of what they felt was certain approval of the country’s first constitution since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“Our constitution has been approved, down with the Baathists!” chanted a joyful crowd, referring to members of Saddam’s disbanded political party.

Shias and Kurds who were oppressed during Saddam’s reign were expected to have massively approved the draft document.

But attention focused on members of the Sunni Arab minority, many of whom fear domination by an alliance of Shias and Kurds and loss of crucial oil revenues. They appeared to have turned out in force to vote, AFP correspondents in Fallujah, Mosul, and Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit said.

The charter requires a simple majority for approval but would be rejected if a two-thirds majority in at least three of the country’s 18 provinces vote “no.”

In the Sunni-dominated province of Salaheddin, which includes Tikrit, election official Saleh Khalil Farraj told AFP that turnout was 80 per cent, but added that the percentage of ‘no’ votes was 71 per cent.

Iraqi voters were nonetheless hailed by leaders worldwide, with US President George W. Bush saying: “By casting their ballots, the Iraqi people deal a severe blow to the terrorists and send a clear message to the world:

Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency.”

In Japan, a foreign ministry statement said: “We pay tribute to the interim government and people of Iraq who participated in the national referendum despite security issues and other difficult conditions.”

“It’s a triumph for ordinary people over militants,” added Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, while UN Secretary General Kofi Anan also “paid tribute to the courage of the Iraqi people”.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, had forecast victory on Saturday, but Saleh al-Motlaq, a Sunni spokesman for the National Council for Dialogue who had helped draft the charter, said he had voted ‘no’ because he was not satisfied with the result.

Sunni Arab newspapers in Cairo echoed that view, with the top-selling Al-Ahram daily saying that a vote either way “will plunge the land of two rivers (Iraq) into a dark tunnel and to an extent that only God knows.”

The constitution is in fact likely to be quickly amended once a new round of general elections is held, and US Middle East expert Juan Cole from the University of Michigan told AFP the document was “fluid and changing”.

“It is not even necessarily parliament that changes it ... It is the clan and community leaders,” he noted, since a last-minute deal on the draft had been spearheaded by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and approved by leaders of Shia and Sunni groups before it was rubber-stamped by parliament.

“This vote is sort of a national vote of confidence for that leadership,” Cole said.

Russia pledged its full assistance to help Iraq in “building and strengthening its new statehood”.

Baghdad University political professor Abdul Jabbar Ahmed told AFP the European Union and United Nations should also become actively involved in Iraq, but must “declare their independence” from US policies.

All who sought to help Iraq should now “negotiate with all Iraqi groups without distinction,” he said. “They must negotiate with those that resist and crush the terrorists.”

Persistant insurgent violence was sharply curbed during the vote, and while six people died on Saturday in various attacks, only one person was killed while the polls were open. —AFP

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